Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

UrbanArt Commission Celebrates 20th Anniversary

Lauren Kennedy with mural by Michael Roy and Derrick Dent. Photo by Crystal Cason.
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We have to support the arts economy in Memphis in a way that empowers artists to make money doing what they do and feel valued. –Lauren Kennedy

The UrbanArt Commission is celebrating 20 years of developing public art and urban design in Memphis with a fundraising event on January 21st at Medicine Factory. Guests will enjoy food from Bounty on Broad, Second Line, Aaron Winters, and Phillip Ashley Chocolates, as well as a specialty cocktail dreamed up by Evan Potts of Porcellino’s. Of course, art is at the center of it all. Five local makers– Brit McDaniel of Paper & Clay, Lauren Carlson of Question the Answer, Phillip Ashley Chocolates, Brittney Bullock of Don’t Blink, and Luis Toro of City & State– have created limited edition items inspired by public art projects around town. Get tickets here.

UAC executive director Lauren Kennedy talked to us about public art’s impact on communities, UAC’s vision for the next 20 years, and nerding out. 

Father and Son by Vitus Shell at the Orange Mound Community Center. Photo courtesy of UAC.

Father and Son by Vitus Shell at the Orange Mound Community Center. Photo courtesy of UAC.

Tell me about your passion for art. Is there a moment you can pinpoint in which you were deeply impacted by art and it made you want to do this type of work? 

I’ve been hooked on art for a long time now and started college my freshman year knowing that I wanted to study art history. I’m that kind of art nerd that will get so overwhelmed in a good museum that I cry a little bit. Pretty much every time I see a gigantic Rothko painting, I want to just curl up inside it.

Art, whatever the media, has incredible potential to move people and I have long been drawn to projects and artists that are able to do that outside of traditional art contexts. Public art is kind of a natural fit for me in that way. People often tell me they don’t know how to talk about art or feel intimidated going to a museum, gallery or traditional performance and that’s hard for me to hear. The most important thing to me about art is that it makes you feel something, and whatever that feeling is, is a valid response.

Roof Like Fluid Flung Over the Plaza by Vito Acconci at the Cannon Center. Photo by Sophorn McRae.

How do Memphis communities benefit from public art, both through its presence and the creation of it? 
I believe that a person’s experience moving through the world matters and that art makes that a more meaningful experience. Siting projects in parks, along medians, on the side of abandoned buildings… encountering these kinds of projects adds something to our day-to-day experiences. We have a lot of room to grow to make that experience even bigger and more inclusive and we are committed to doing that. We are also working to be a better resource to local artists to ensure that they are able to access opportunities that we provide through commissions and temporary projects.
We have to support the arts economy in Memphis in a way that empowers artists to make money doing what they do and feel valued.
A Note for Hope mural by Jeff Zimmerman. Photo by Sophorn McRae.

A Note for Hope mural by Jeff Zimmerman. Photo by Sophorn McRae.

How has UAC’s approach evolved over the years? What’s next? 

I think that when the UrbanArt Commission was founded, the primary goal was to establish this relationship that we have maintained with the City of Memphis. Those early years were really about advocating that this is work that the city should invest in, leading to City Council passing the percent-for-art ordinance in 2002.

Now we’re also exploring working with more private partners and organizations across the city and ultimately growing the number of people bought in and investing in this space. We are starting to see how much more impactful we can be by thinking comprehensively and strategically about how to connect all of the conversations we are having with folks at the city, Livable Memphis, Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Downtown Memphis Commission and more. The work we are doing with Memphis 3.0 is such an exciting development for us because we aren’t just talking about producing projects, but actually injecting some creativity in how we approach strategic goals for our city.

Soulsville Gateway by Arnold Thompson on Bellevue Blvd. Photo courtesy of UAC.

Soulsville Gateway by Arnold Thompson on Bellevue Blvd. Photo courtesy of UAC.

Artists are creative problem solvers and I am really happy to see us inviting them to flex those muscles in a radically different way through this process. And to be inviting artists working in different media – visual, craft, design, music, performance – to work with us on this.

Learn more about UrbanArt Commission programs and initiatives at their website.

See more images of public art in our post, 12 Unique Art Installations in Downtown Memphis and through the Memphis Art Project.

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